Multiple school superintendents told the Texas House Public Education Committee on Tuesday that while they do not support A-F school grading systems, proposed changes to the accountability measures are sorely needed.

The changes in question are part of House Bill 22 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and would overhaul how the state assigns letter grades to public schools and districts in Texas. The bill, which was left pending in committee Tuesday, would place less importance on assessment tests and would take into consideration other factors like participation in extracurricular activities and support of low-income students.

The new system found support from superintendents such as Doug Williams, from Sunnyvale, who said that “good accountability should measure all aspects of student improvement," including fine arts, second language acquisition and enrichment programs.

"As the other superintendents have stated, we are not in favor of [an A-F label]," he said. "Yet we are in favor of this bill because this bill provides a step in the right direction for school accountability."

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The A-F system, which was created during the 2015 legislation session and which officially takes effect in 2018, assigns schools letter grades based on five different performance measures. Under HB 22, the state would get an additional year to replace the current pass/fail school accountability system with a revamped A-F system that would put less emphasis on achievement tests when grading schools and would judge schools in three different categories, instead of the five described in the original A-F system.

Yet as superintendents found Huberty's system more agreeable than its predecessor, state Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who is tasked with administering it, said the bill still needs a closer reading. 

The bill, he said, "does improve the situation" but leaves his office "with a lot of very specific, technical questions" on how much value should be assigned to each measure. 

"There's no question that this fixes some of the unintended mathematical consequences of the existing five-domain model," he said. "But the question becomes, which indicators go live? How do they go live? ... [is] there evidence to support if that indicator is useful to children or not useful to children?" 

One of the changes most supported by Texas superintendents is a new differentiation between a D and an F. In Huberty’s bill, a D means “needs improvement” and an F means "unacceptable." If a school gets a D, it has the chance to locally review its issues. State services would only get involved if a school receives an F. 

"That D is going to give an opportunity for schools to realize, 'I'm on the wrong path,' and for them to have that local discretion of partnering with universities or the service center of their school districts to begin working on those areas," said Mary Ann Whitaker, a Hudson ISD superintendent. 

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Like other testifying superintendents, Whitaker said she "philosophically" doesn't support A-F accountability systems but added that she was in favor of Huberty's bills as long as, when making changes, lawmakers "consider the size of the district, the location of the district, the level of poverty of the district and [the availability] of resources in the district."

The original A-F accountability system grades schools based on student performance on the STAAR exam, student progress on STAAR, community engagement, college and career readiness and closing the achievement gap.

HB 22 would condense the number of categories in which schools are graded — with grades for student achievement, student progress and student climate. Under the bill, a school’s student achievement and progress rates would no longer be judged solely on results from the STAAR. 

Other factors, such as the rate of students involved in advanced courses and student extracurricular participation rates, would also count when grading a school. The bill would also let schools submit scores for locally selected alternative assessments instead of STAAR results.

Huberty said he introduced HB 22 because he was tired of "listening to rhetoric about 'our failing school system.'" He said that by dividing school characteristics the way his bill does, school leaders have a better opportunity to identify the areas where their schools might be underperforming instead of collectively failing them in one single category. 

"There are some schools that are out there that perhaps don't have the parental engagement part because their parents are working, or they're not around," he said. "We're saying that if this inner-city school is a failing school, it's a summative grade because of this one particular component, that probably there's nothing we could do about." 

While most of those who testified Tuesday did so in in support of the bill, some suggested tightening the bill language to hold schools accountable for measures other than testing and grades, especially those that would assign schools grades based on student climate. This refers to the third domain under Huberty's A-F revamp, which uses post-secondary readiness course completion rates for economically disadvantaged students and health and wellness rates as achievement indicators. 

Theresa Trevino, a member of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said state government must make sure schools are held accountable for not only measuring these factors but are improving conditions that help disadvantaged students perform better. Because of this, she said, the state should take more time to make sure the measures will encourage improvement instead of just providing guidelines that could be ignored. 

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"As a physician, I would say, 'Take the two years, you won’t want to give the vaccine to millions of children untested'," she said.

Though the original A-F system has received criticism from teachers, parents, superintendents and education professionals across the state, it was originally passed as a measure for parents to better understand how local school's performances, said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, during the hearing. Under current laws, the unedited A-F accountability system officially takes effect in 2018. However, Texas schools received a preliminary set of grades this January, showing mixed results. For example, in a range of letter grades from A through D, Texas’ 10 most-populous districts received more Ds than As in four categories. 

Back when these grades were released, Morath said the results represented a “work-in-progress” and that the models were “likely to change” before the A-F model passed in 2015 becomes effective in August of 2018.

“These ratings should not be considered predictors of future district or campus performance ratings,” Morath said in a January release.

Courtney Boswell, director of education group Texas Aspires, said she supports A-F grading systems because they help parents make better-informed school decisions and agreed with some of the changes Huberty's bill introduces to the system.

However, she said she will fully support HB 22 once it addresses certain changes to its accountability systems, like basing student achievement and student progress on "completely objective measures such as test results, not participation rates." She also suggested that the third domain – school climate — make up no more than 10 percent of the total grade.

Huberty’s bill is similar to Senate Bill 2051 by his Senate counterpart Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. Taylor’s bill also condenses the number of categories schools get graded on and also factors in school graduation rates in its grading system. However, Taylor’s bill gives more authority to the education commissioner to implement accountability rules and does not differentiate between D and F ratings. 

Read more about the A-F accountability system:

  • House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor have filed bills to help make the A-F accountability system more palatable to educators.
  • Educators argue the preliminary A-F grades contradict past distinctions they have received from the state. Proponents of the new rating system say it more accurately represents how schools are doing.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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